Turning Point: Rafting the Colorado River

The splendor of the Grand Canyon and the challenge of rafting the rapids helped me leave my marriage — and reinvent my future.

By Margie Goldsmith
Photograph: iStock Photo

The River Brings Change

They say that rafting the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon changes you. I don’t know if it’s the canyon or the river that does it; maybe it’s both. But after 14 days of running rapids on 121 miles of river, staring up at stars as big as exploding cluster bombs and waking to the sound of bighorn sheep clacking horns, I realized my marriage was no longer working. The strange thing was that until then I hadn’t realized how unhappy I was.

I was not supposed to go on this trip. My husband had been invited by a client, but had persuaded him to take me instead. I was thrilled. Eighteen of us would paddle three rubber rafts down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon for seven days. At the halfway point, we’d hike out. Unlike trips on big, noisy motor craft, ours was do-it-yourself. We would blow up our own yellow rafts and use paddle power.

After we stowed our gear in rubber dry sacks and donned life preservers, our guide, Martha, explained the simple commands: forward paddle, back paddle, left side, right side. High side terrified me because it meant we were about to encounter a wave and needed to scramble to the high side to stop ourselves from swimming, the euphemism for going overboard.

"If you swim, get in the swimmer’s position," Martha said. "Legs out in front, arms out for stability."

"What about the freezing water?" someone asked.

"Don’t worry. You won’t feel it, because you’ll be more concerned with staying alive," Martha answered. Could I bail before we even started downriver?

But as we dipped our paddles into the silty water and began our journey, my fear melted into awe. Surrounding us were red cliff walls, billions of years old and rising thousands of feet into the sky. The rock walls sometimes resembled an ancient stone face; others looked like chiseled snakes or lions. The colors changed too. At first light, they were lavender and pink; by noon, plum and russet; and in late afternoon they formed a vermilion curtain. As the sun sank, they glowed burnished copper, and at night they were silver in the light of the moon.

The Colorado River

The Colorado River has 161 rapids in the Grand Canyon. But there are long stretches of still water, and you have time to notice how the river has cut through and down to the depth of a mile, exposing ancient rock strata and creating the 277-mile-long Grand Canyon.

Often the only sound was our paddles dipping into the water. Most days we’d tie the boats to tamarisk trees and hike to side canyons. One day it was the Silver Grotto, where we swam to a hanging rope, pulled ourselves up, and walked among sunken pools.

Another day, we stopped at Vasey’s Paradise, and I walked through a frigid waterfall. Then, despite my fear of heights, I jumped off a huge rock into the river. I even swam through rapids. After that, nothing scared me.

On smooth stretches of the river, we’d drift along, alone with our thoughts. Martha let us take turns being captain, but none of us understood the river and we’d inevitably end up trapped in a swirling eddy. We’d have to paddle till our arms ached to get back out into the current.

Lost in My Thoughts

That’s how I began to think of my marriage, like an eddy. We had been united against the world our first 10 years, but these last two, we had been paddling in different directions. He no longer told me about important things that happened at work; when we talked, we argued. Once proud of my successful video production company, he now made fun of my "cute little business." When had the negativity started?

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